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Hollywood comes to Capitol Hill to push for Social Security bill

Legislation would allow gay couples to access benefits

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Hal Sparks speaking at the Social Security equality press conference (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Los Angeles congresswoman beamed in support from Hollywood on Thursday to spread the word about legislation she introduced in the U.S. House to end inequities that same-sex couples face in the Social Security system.

During a news conference on Capitol Hill, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) said her legislation, the Social Security Equality Act, would allow gay families to gain access to the same survivor and pension benefits available to opposite-sex couples.

“The gay and lesbian population will not be told by their government that they are second-class citizens,” Sánchez said. “Same-sex couples pay into Social Security — they should receive the full benefits they have earned.”

Sánchez’s bill, H.R. 4609, would eliminate the Social Security Administration policy denying same-sex couples benefits. According to Sánchez, gay male couples receive 18 percent less in Social Security benefits than straight couples, while lesbian couples receive 31 percent less because women statistically earn less money.

Four types of Social Security benefits are denied to same-sex couples: spousal retirement benefits after one spouse retires; disability benefits if one spouse becomes disabled; survivor’s benefits, which allow surviving spouses to claim either their own Social Security benefit or an amount equal to the compensation that would have been afforded to their deceased spouse; and the death benefit, which provides for burial expenses.

The legislation, which was previously introduced in 2010, has 95 co-sponsors: all Democrats. The four openly gay members of Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) — have all signed on in support.

Celebrities appeared at the news conference to advocate for the legislation alongside the lawmakers and LGBT advocates. Supporters carried signs reading “Outlaw Social Security Discrimination” and “Stop Economic Violence Against LGBT Seniors.” One sign was a mock Social Security card with “same-sex couples” written in the line allotted for a name.

George Takei (left) and his spouse Brad Altman (Blade photo by Michael Key)

George Takei, famed for his role as “Mr. Sulu” in the “Star Trek” series, appeared with his spouse, Brad Altman, and decried the hardship that same-sex couples face because of inequities in the Social Security system as “unfair and unjust.”

“There are same-sex couples who are denied equality often when misfortune befalls same-sex couples,” Takei said. “One falls ill, or tragically one might pass away. A survivor is left not only grieving, but financially insecure — and often the home they’ve built together, shared together is lost.”

Hal Sparks, known for his role as “Michael” in Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” also spoke out against the current system for putting LGBT seniors in a position that is “not only emotionally difficult, but financially or physically dangerous.”

“It is odd for me, at this very moment, that as the law stands, I have rights that many of the people who are standing behind me, to my right and my left, do not have,” Sparks said. “If the law is not changed, they are headed toward a future that is more limited, more fractured and, quite frankly, more dangerous than mine.”

Another speaker at the event felt the discrimination under the current Social Security system firsthand. Alice Herman, from Los Angeles, a spokesperson for the grassroots group “Rock for Equality,” talked about the difficulties she faced after losing Sylvia, her partner of 45 years.

Even though both had paid into Social Security for more than 50 years, Herman at the age of 73 wasn’t able to receive survivor benefits following the death of her partner, who had a greater income. While Herman was a social worker, her partner worked in business and climbed the corporate ladder.

“When she died, much to my amazement, Social Security denied me the death benefit, then Social Security refused to provide me with the survivor’s benefit,” Herman said. “These denials came even though we were legally married. They dismissed our 45 together, our 45 years of love and commitment, our 45 years of contributing to society as meaningless.”

Had she been able to receive these benefits, Herman said she would have been able to stay in her home. However, she was forced to find another place to live because the only other option would be living in her car.

LGBT advocates also railed against the Social Security system for not providing gay couples the same benefits as others.

L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean (right) and Linda Sanchez (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Lorri Jean, CEO of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said same-sex couples pay into Social Security with every paycheck, but are unable to reap the full benefits of the system.

“Every single month, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center provides programs and services to thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors,” Jean said. “Too many come because they have been denied Social Security benefits.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, commended Sanchez for introducing the legislation and emphasized Social Security’s effectiveness at being “one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in the nation’s history.”

“The Social Security Equality Act begins to give same-sex couples the dignity they deserve and the financial security they desperately need,” Carey said. “In a time of flat income for most Americans and disappearing pensions, it is absolutely vital for the government to protect our most vulnerable.”

Michael Adams, executive director of Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE, also stressed the need for the bill as a way to help LGBT elders.

“Whether it’s our LGBT community or our community as a whole, our elders are our pioneers,” Adams said. “They are the people who led the way for us, and the fact that in 2012, we are still having this argument over whether LGBT elders would be treated with dignity and respect and tolerance is outrageous.”

Adams said most seniors rely on Social Security for at least half of their retirement income, and LGBT elders need Social Security even more because they’re more likely to be living in poverty than opposite-sex couples. Additionally, Adams said LGBT elders are more likely to live single in their old age, and one-third of single elders rely on Social Security for their entire retirement income.

Despite the push by advocates, movement in the Republican-controlled House is unlikely. Nonetheless, Sánchez said she’s hopeful the legislation will receive a hearing in the House Ways & Means Committee, which will have jurisdiction over the bill.

Sánchez said she hasn’t had the opportunity to have a conversation with Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) about the bill because it has just been introduced, but said “that conversation will be taking place in the near future.” The Ways & Means Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment on the measure.

The legislation is being introduced relatively late in the 112th Congress compared to other LGBT bills, which were introduced at the start of last year. Sánchez said the bill was being introduced at this time because “there were certain legislative nuances to the bill that we had to work out.”

Advocates at the news conference also said talks were underway about a Senate companion, although no one would identify any potential Senate sponsors or give an estimate on when the legislation would be introduced.

It’s unclear whether the bill would be necessary if the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex couples, were overturned, or if further revision would be needed after DOMA is lifted to ensure same-sex couples are eligible for Social Security benefits.

Sánchez said she wants to push for DOMA repeal as she advocates for the Social Security Equality Act.

“Ultimately, DOMA is an issue that we have to deal with, and the preferable route would be to repeal DOMA,” Sánchez said. “But this is one step we can make on the path to making that happen and we’re hoping that if we get the support that we need and the grassroots to have this legislation pass — because it’s such a clear case of economic discrimination — then that undermines the arguments in DOMA.”

Jean talked about the need to overturn DOMA at the same time she pushed for passage of the new legislation.

“Of course, we still need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and ensure that same-sex couples are given all of the rights that are straight brothers and sisters enjoy,” Jean said. “But until that day, the Social Security Equality Act will make a crucial difference to countless elderly people.”

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Joe Bogowski

    April 27, 2012 at 11:42 am

    REPEAL THE UNFAIR WEP & GPO SOCIAL SECURITY LAWS NOW!
    For nearly 30 years, the United States government has been cheating millions of Social Security recipients out of up to 60% of their EARNED benefits due to the unfair WEP and GPO laws. Bills to repeal these laws that have thrown many seniors into complete poverty are never even voted on by our cowardly congress. That’s because whenever a bill to repeal these unfair laws they are tied up in committee and never see the light of day. Our congress people whine that they can’t live on their $174,000 per year salaries, yet they have no trouble sleeping at nights when America’s senior citizens have been forced into poverty because of this nation’s corrupt Social Security laws. We can’t afford to pay seniors the benefits that they actually earned but we can afford to give away billions to foreign banks, and squander over FOUR TRILLION DOLLARS in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  2. FAEN

    April 28, 2012 at 6:08 am

    They should push for immigration rights as well. Binational gay couples are in dire need of help.

  3. Dan

    May 5, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    A very important issue, becoming more so as we all age.

  4. factchcker

    May 25, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    While at it, fully repeal the earnings limitation from age 62 to 65 and allow claim and suspend, why tell seniors to take benefits at 62, retire, and have to wait until they are older to go back to work?

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National

Alarming numbers of Texas Trans kids in crisis over litany of anti-Trans bills

“Under the guise of protecting children- Texas legislators are directly harming thousands of transgender & nonbinary youth”

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LGBTQ youth protest anti-Trans bills at the Texas Capitol building (Photo Credit: Equality Texas)

NEW YORK – The Trevor Project received nearly 4,000 crisis contacts from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas in 2021, with many directly stating that they are feeling stressed and considering suicide due to anti-trans laws being debated in their state.

This new data comes during a year when Texas lawmakers have proposed nearly 70 anti-LGBTQ bills, including more than 40 bills that specifically target transgender and nonbinary youth — far more than any other state.

The Texas State Senate passed its anti-trans sports ban SB3 this week, and the companion bill HB10 is now moving forward in the Texas House. 

Republican Texas Governor Abbott has prioritized SB 3 and called for a third consecutive special session of the legislature to consider this bill, which would ban transgender student-athletes from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

“The Trevor Project’s crisis counselors have been hearing from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas who are scared and worried about anti-trans laws being debated in their state — and some have even expressed suicidal thoughts. This is a crisis. We urge Texas lawmakers to consider the weight of their words and actions — and to reject HB10/SB3,” said Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project.

  • Between January 1 and August 30, 2021, The Trevor Project received more than 10,800 crisis contacts (calls, texts, and chats) from LGBTQ young people in Texas looking for support. More than 3,900 of those crisis contacts (36%) came from transgender or nonbinary youth.
  • Crisis contacts from LGBTQ young people in Texas seeking support have grown over 150% when compared to the same time period in 2020.
  • While this volume of crisis contacts can not be attributed to any one factor (or bill), a qualitative analysis of the crisis contacts found that:
  • Transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas have directly stated that they are feeling stressed, using self-harm, and considering suicide due to anti-LGBTQ laws being debated in their state.
  • Some transgender and nonbinary youth have expressed fear over losing access to sports that provide important acceptance in their lives.

“As a transgender young person in Texas, this new data from the Trevor Project is not surprising, but it’s nonetheless harrowing and alarming to see this representation of the detrimental impact Texas Lege is having on our community — especially our kids. Lawmakers and proponents of bills like SB3 and HB10 should be alarmed by these statistics, too,” Landon Richie a Trans youth activist and GenderCool Youth Leader from Houston told the Los Angeles Blade.

“Under the guise of protecting children and promoting fairness, Texas legislators are directly harming thousands of transgender and nonbinary youth, denying them the dignity, respect, and childhoods that they deserve. It’s never an exaggeration to say that the passage — and merely debate — of these bills will cost lives,”  Richie added.

National mental health organizations like The Trevor Project and state LGBTQ equality groups including Equality Texas and Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT) are raising concerns about the impact of such legislation on the mental health and wellbeing of transgender and nonbinary youth.

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half (52%) of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year and 1 in 5 attempted suicide. Further, Trevor released a new research brief earlier this month on LGBTQ youth participation in sports, which found that a majority of LGBTQ young people (nearly 66%) do not actively participate in sports — with many citing fear of bullying and discrimination as a key factor for not participating.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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2nd largest school district in Utah bans Pride & BLM flags as ‘too political’

“We have to have a politically neutral classroom, and we’re going to educate the students in the best possible way that we can”

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Davis School District Offices in Farmington Utah (Photo Credit: Davis School District)

FARMINGTON, Ut. – Administrators this week in the Davis School District, which is Utah’s 2nd largest school district with 72,987 students, banned LGBTQ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags, saying they are ‘politically charged.’

According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Davis Schools spokesperson Chris Williams told the paper; “No flags fly in our schools except for the flag of the United States of America.” Williams later walked that statement back adding a clarification that some of the Districts schools have flags from sports team or international countries which are considered “unrelated to politics.”

“What we’re doing is we’re following state law,” said Williams. “State law says that we have to have a classroom that’s politically neutral.”

Amanda Darrow, Director of Youth, Family, and Education at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, told multiple media outlets the school district is “politicizing the rainbow flag” which doesn’t belong on a political list.

“That flag for us is so much more,” said Darrow. “It is just telling us we’re included in the schools, we are being seen in the schools, and we belong in these schools.”

KUTV CBS2 News in Salt Lake City checked with the Utah State Board of Education. In an email, spokesman Mark Peterson said, “There is nothing in code that specifically defines a rainbow flag as a political statement so it would be up to district or charter school policies to make that determination.”

The local Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in saying in a statement;

Whether or not a school district has the legal ability to ban inclusive and supportive symbols from classrooms, it is bad policy for them to do so,” the advocacy organization said in a statement. “Utah schools have an obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identify, feel welcome inside a classroom. We urge school administrators and teachers to adopt policies that make all students feel safe and included.”

Williams insisted the policy is not meant to exclude anyone and that all students are loved and welcomed – they just want to keep politics out of school he told the Tribune and KUTV.

“We have to have a politically neutral classroom, and we’re going to educate the students in the best possible way that we can,” said Williams.

A Utah based veteran freelance journalist, writer, editor, and food photographer weighed in on Twitter highlighting the negative impact of the Davis Schools decision on its LGBTQ youth.

Davis County School District bans LGTBQ and BLM flags as ‘too political’

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Non-binary person reports assault by Proud Boys near Portland

‘They nearly killed me’

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Juniper Simonis (Photo by Mariah Harris)

It was a typical day for Juniper Simonis. The freelance ecologist decided to break from work for lunch at about 3 p.m. to take their service dog, Wallace, to the local dog park and grab a bite to eat.  

But a planned peaceful afternoon quickly turned ugly. Simonis says they survived a gang assault of about 30 perpetrators in Gresham, Ore., a suburb outside of Portland. The Oregon resident encountered the group for only minutes but suffered a concussion, sprained jaw, extensive car damage and verbal assaults, they said. 

“They nearly killed me,” they said.

Simonis said they turned into a parking lot to pick up lunch in Gresham, Ore., and stumbled upon a rally that included several members of the Proud Boys — a far-right, ultra-nationalist organization known for its anti-LGBTQ, anti-feminism and neo-fascist ideologies. 

There was a “Flag Ride” right-wing rally in a parking lot earlier that day. Simonis was under the impression the event had ended after checking reports on Twitter. After pulling into the lot, originally to look for lunch options, Simonis saw a large gathering still in the lot. 

Simonis decided to take pictures of what was happening to post online to warn others and was intentional in keeping their distance, they said. As Simonis was preparing to leave the area, they yelled from inside the car, “Fuck you, fascists, go home.” 

“I did not expect this to escalate into violence,” they said. 

The attack itself only lasted about three minutes, Simonis said. Simonis was quickly surrounded by several people and physically blocked from leaving the lot. People stepped in front of the parking lot exit, then a car was moved to barricade Simonis. People began to shout homophobic slurs at Simonis, they said. 

“I’m in serious trouble now and I know it,” they said. 

Simonis was then punched while inside their vehicle and was briefly knocked out. They regained consciousness a few seconds later, and a cinder block was thrown at the car and shattered the back window of their car inches away from their service dog, Wallace. 

Simonis got out of the car to assess the damage and make sure their service dog was safe. They quickly got back in their car and was able to leave the lot by maneuvering around the blocked exit, Simonis said. 

Wallace, Juniper Simonis’ service dog. (Photo by Mariah Harris)

Looking back at the photos and videos Simonis took before the assault, Simonis said they saw people looking into the camera and acknowledging them taking photos. 

“I honestly don’t know if I hadn’t said anything, that … things would have gone any different,” they said. 

Last year, Simonis was targeted and arrested by federal police in Portland during the tumultuous Black Lives Matter protests in the city. They were denied medical attention, misgendered, jumped and aggressively handcuffed while taken into custody. 

Simonis is still working through legal proceedings in a multi-plaintiff lawsuit. 

A witness to the event called the Gresham Police Department, which was only a few blocks away from the incident. But the call went to voicemail and the witness did not leave a message, Simonis said. 

Another witness called 911, Simonis said, which led to an officer calling Simonis about 45 minutes after the accident to take a report.   

In the police report obtained by the Blade, Simonis is consistently misgendered. Simonis’ sex is also listed as “unknown” in the report. The incident was labeled as vehicle vandalism. 

Simonis said the conversation with the officer was filled with victim-blaming and the officer wrote in the report that Simonis should avoid “approaching groups of this nature.”  

“At no point in this conversation does he treat me as an actual victim of a crime,” Simonis said.

The Gresham Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

Weeks after the assault, Simonis is struggling mentally and physically, they said. 

The concussion makes working on a computer virtually impossible because of light sensitivity and trouble focusing, Simonis said. The pain caused by the sprained jaw makes it difficult to focus, as well. 

Simonis is not able to begin physical therapy for their jaw until November because of long medical wait times, they said. The cost to repair the car damages will be about $8,000, as well, they said.  

The times where Simonis is able to focus are usually taken up by piecing together what happened that day, they said. 

“The part of my brain that I use for work has been hijacked functionally by the part of the brain that needed to know what happened to me,” they said. “There is such a painful need to understand what happened to me.”

Because of past traumatic events, like the experience of being in federal custody last year, Simonis said processing and living with the trauma is a bit easier to handle. But their ability to work will be forever changed yet again, they said. 

“I’m not able to work at the pace that I used to work at before I was assaulted by DHS. I’ll never be,” they said. “And this is just a further knockdown.” 

The trauma of the event has increased Simonis’ hyper-vigilance, as well. 

“Every time I hear a car go by, I’m double-checking,” they said. 

Even though Simonis has the tools to process and live with the immense trauma, they will never be the same person, they said. 

“They fucking changed my life forever. Point blank,” they said. “Not just mentally, but physically and physiologically. I can’t go back to where I was before. I’m lucky that I survived.”

Simonis has reported the attack to the FBI and is pursuing legal action with two specific goals in mind: to heal and to prevent similar crimes from happening.

“I am somebody who believes in abolishing the carceral system and the justice system as it exists and policing,” Simonis said. “But also a 37-year-old trans and disabled person who somehow managed to survive this long. And so naturally has become pragmatic about the world.”

Because of the reaction of the Gresham Police Department, Simonis did not want to work with local officers and instead went to the federal level. But because of the alleged assault by agents in Portland last year, this decision wasn’t easy for them.

Perpetrators in the assault threatened to call the police on Simonis,  even though Simonis did not commit a crime. Reporting the crime to the federal level is also a layer of protection, they said. 

“All of this is forcing my hand,” they said. There is no easy decision in the situation, they added. 

“We all know that crimes are underreported. We hear about it all the time,” they said. And there are reasons why people don’t report crimes and they’re totally understandable. A lot of victims are very concerned about what will happen if they break anonymity. In my situation, I’ve already broken anonymity.”

With recent arrests and crackdowns on the Proud Boys and other hate groups in the United States, Simonis is bracing for a long process. 

“This isn’t just going to go on a shelf,” they said. 

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